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Activists Are Fighting to Get Big Oil's Money Out of Britain's Cultural Institutions

Many feel that it's morally and ethically reprehensible for some of the UK's most famous museums to be sponsored in part by companies like BP.
April 24, 2015, 6:00pm

A controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico to help prevent the spread of oil following the explosion on Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg via

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's no coincidence that artist and campaigner Mel Evans published her book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts on April 20, five years to the day that BP's Deepwater Horizon Disaster began spewing 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Over the last five years a growing coalition of activists, artists, culture-lovers, and organizations—including art and research group Platform and performance interventionist troupes Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company, and Shell Out Sounds—have been calling out big oil's sponsorship of Britain's cultural beacons. They feel that, in the context of climate change and fossil fuels trashing the environment, it's morally and ethically reprehensible for some of the UK's most recognizable national treasures (Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House) to be sponsored by BP.


Considering that, in December of 2014, a US court levied an $18 billion fine on BP and described as "reckless" and "grossly negligent" in relation to Deepwater Horizon, it's easy to understand why BP's logo plastered across our flagship cultural spaces could be perceived as grossly inappropriate. Indeed, there's a very real sense that oil sponsorship of the arts is heading the same way as tobacco sponsorship—up in smoke.

Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts charts campaigners' journey, drills down into why BP and Shell have snuggled up to our major cultural institutions, and details the impact of BP's Tate sponsorship on the gallery's reputation, staff, and artists, questioning who benefits from the 25-year relationship.

"I appreciate people are super-protective of funding because it's so precious, but I'm aware of arts professionals who want to make good, ethical decisions and make sure there's a process for deciding what goes in a public space," explains Mel. "An oil company logo in a gallery defines the space and we should be able to have a conversation about it."

Liberate Tate's "The Gift," a piece of protest art in response to oil sponsorship of the Tate

The narrative we're fed is that corporate sponsorship of the arts is central to affordable access. When I spent a September Saturday morning observing Liberate Tate's Black Square intervention in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and spoke to gallery-goers regarding BP sponsorship of the Tate, the consensus was: "It's not ideal, but if it means we can come here for free, then so be it."


Thing is, this is a myth. "BP's money does not have any relation to free access to the Tate whatsoever," says Mel. "There's a government agreement that means Tate gets money from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. That's taxpayers money—our money—on the condition of maintaining free access.

"Forty percent of the Tate's funding comes from the government. It has huge trading income from its cafes and bookshops, sizable revenue from 100,000 members and it receives further public money via the Arts Council, and donations from private individuals. BP's sponsorship is less than 0.5 percent of Tate's annual income; it contributes virtually nothing."

Mel knows this because, late last year, campaigners won a protracted legal battle with Tate, forcing it to disclose its BP sponsorship figures. They range from $227,500 a year from 1991 to 2000, to $500,500 from 2002 to 2007, and average a meager $364,000 per year.

Glen Tarman, who submitted the initial Freedom of Information request in 2011, outlines why this sponsorship sits so uncomfortably for so many: "It's not Tate's job to push the fossil fuel industry and to do so in our name; Tate's job is to promote public enjoyment of art. Climate change is causing massive harm and one of the main culprits is being given our nation's art to market itself as socially responsible."

BP's sponsorship of the arts amounts to "artwashing," as the title of Mel's book indicates. "Artwashing procures oil companies a social license to operate," she says. "It's a careful PR strategy because the industry realizes if they are to survive they must find acceptability while doing something people find unacceptable, and the arts is central to that.


"Sponsorship buys you so much more than advertising—it's about this association with prestigious institutions that are central to Britain's cultural imagination and history. These sponsorships are essential to their daily operations; without them they are outsiders, multinational corporations in tax havens."

Arts and culture reflects and shapes our imaginations, and there is no doubt that climate change is a huge, pressing issue. So the possibility that our cultural beacons may—even subconsciously—be limited in critically exploring climate change as a result of their proud relationship with BP is a very legitimate concern.

It's a sentiment echoed by high-profile cultural figures including actors Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance, playwright Mark Ravenhill, musician Matthew Herbert and visual artist Raoul Martinez, who describes fossil fuel companies' behavior as "a crime against humanity on a par with genocide."

Workers contracted by BP clean up oil on a beach in Louisiana. Photo by Patrick Kelley via

Campaigners fear that Lord John Browne's position as Chair of Tate's Trustees may be stymieing frank internal discussions around BP's sponsorship of Tate. Lord Browne, who was the Director of Cuadrilla—the company forging ahead with fracking in Britain— until a couple of weeks ago began working for BP in 1969 and rose to become its Chief Executive from 1995 to 2007.

The blossoming divestment movement across the UK's universities and faith groups is further evidence that associating with fossil fuel industries is becoming toxic. Liberate Tate's Kevin Smith highlights why this is such a landmark: "Universities and cultural institutions divesting from the fossil fuel industry creates distance between them and mainstream society. It undermines their social legitimacy and power base, and stigmatizes big oil and fossil fuel companies."


I contacted BP's press office to ask whether, in light of the divestment movement, BP was confident it could maintain its partnerships with Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House, and also whether BP was concerned about oil sponsorship becoming socially unacceptable in the same way as tobacco sponsorship.

This was BP's somewhat confusing response: "Rahul, we've sponsored the arts for decades because the arts institutions benefit and want us to, and just like them, BP has a role to play in the country's cultural and business activities—we employ 15,000 staff here and invest billions of pounds in jobs and in supplying the energy which people take for granted."

A worker cleaning up oil on a beach in Louisiana. Photo by Patrick Kelley via

So once we're all done taking BP's hard work for granted, 2015 could be pivotal in the art-not-oil battle, as the big four will be making a decision on whether to renew their BP sponsorship deals which run out in 2016.

"We're not going away," says Mel. "It's inspiring and exciting—it feels like a possible time. I'm from a community arts background, so the fact we've have so many artists, activists, theater makers, gallery goers, and Tate staff, members and trustees involved in thinking about what's happening here is really important."

Seeing a disparate group of everyday people come together and organize a formidable movement to challenge one of the most controversial corporations on the planet's role at the heart of our cultural lives seems like democracy alive, kicking and in action.

"It is an act of democracy," agrees Mel. "The ballot box is not enough. If these spaces really are public, then we, the public, have to be able to change them."

Thanks to the unstinting hard work of campaigners and activists, the question is not if oil sponsorship of the arts will end, but when.

Follow Rahul on Twitter.

Artwash: Big Oil and the Artsis out now.